Alex’s Adventures in Internetland: July-October

It’s another round-up! I’ve been leaving my wordy droppings around the internet again, but in case you haven’t spent the last quarter tracking my every move, I’ve collected the finest samples from the last few months and brushed them into one neat corner for you to sniff at.

2014: Game of the Year

I’m stretching my usual definition of both ‘Game’ and ‘of 2014’ here, but this is undoubtedly the game I’ve played most of over the past 12 months, the one that’s given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments. Kate ‘Mac’ McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki’s spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until… It was finally time. Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon. For anyone who has already taken Netrunner‘s red pill, the above won’t be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what’s going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it’s probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let’s try and lay it out: It’s early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we’re picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the ‘Armitage Codebusting’ resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we’ll get to those in a minute. This turn, she has used up three of the four ‘click’ actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It’s time to run. Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the ‘enter’ key, and she was in. All of Jinteki’s servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she went right for the company’s HQ. On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game. While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp’s are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp’s servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans. There’s not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It’s not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they’ve decided to play into ‘Remote Servers’, but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they’re drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ). Jinteki’s defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM. The Corp protects their valuables with ‘Ice’ cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card ‘installed’ on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn’t have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to ‘rez’ – activate the Ice’s defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time. In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner’s line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances. This gamble is Netrunner‘s heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information. With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine. Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac’s nose and splashed onto her console’, obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she’d managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki’s HQ – vital evidence. Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it’s is a Codegate, they’d need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they’re not common, and Mac doesn’t have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage. Netrunner isn’t a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell […]

What I’m Playing: MONIKERS

A quick break here before we launch into a four-part special, ignoring the huge backlog of games I’ve made notes on and instead talking up a game I first played last weekend and just couldn’t keep quiet about: Monikers doesn’t really exist as a game yet. The version I’ve played was printed, by me, onto some card we had lying around the flat. The lovely pictures I’m using throughout this post are nicked from the game’s Kickstarter. Which brings us neatly to the reason I’m writing about it now, rather than any of the other games I need to get written up before Mario Kart 8 arrives and dominates my playtime for the next half-year. While Monikers quickly passed its rather conservative $20,000 goal, you still have the chance to help the campaign push past its various stretch goals and essentially help improve the game you, and everyone else, will play. And unlike most Kickstarter games, you can be guaranteed of Monikers‘ quality. Why? Because I’ve played it, and I’m telling you it’s ace, obviously. And also because you can play the same demo version yourself, for free. Monikers is based on a public domain game called ‘Celebrity’. You might not have heard of the game, but you’ll have played a variant of it. Split into teams, pick a bunch of famous names from a hat, set a timer, and try to get your teammates to guess as many as possible using verbal clues. Taboo + the Copycat cards from Cranium + that ‘Who Am I?’ game they play in Inglourious Basterds where one of the Nazis is King Kong. You play with a partly random, partly chosen deck of cards shared by both teams – each player picks up seven, throws out two they don’t fancy, and combines them all into a big pile. This gets whittled down in a series of 60-second rounds, as the correct guesses are plucked out of the deck and the remainder are shuffled back up and passed to the next player. You keep playing until even the names that nobody’s heard of (Punxsutawney Phil and Thomas Kinkade were the ones that killed our group) have been guessed. The range of names on offer is Moniker‘s first stroke of genius: a mix of history, celebrity and internet culture that feels carefully picked to guarantee the maximum amount of conversational silliness. The second is that the process I’ve just described is only round one. Once the two teams have worked their way through the deck, the the whole cycle begins again. The scores at the bottom of each card are counted up to find each team’s score, then the cards are shuffled back together. Welcome to Round Two, where teams again have 60 seconds to guess as many names as they can, but this time they can only use a single word. Eventually, the deck will be conquered once more. Count. Shuffle. Round Three. Where those same few dozen names have to be conjured with only gestures and sound effects. Using charades to convey, say, ‘David Foster Wallace’ is a pretty tall order, but because the card will have cropped up at least twice before, your pathetic impression of a lobster stands a fighting chance. Unless, of course, ‘Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid‘ is also in your deck. Because you’re working with a finite number of cards, of which each player saw five before the game even began, you can start factoring traditional game skills like memorising and elimination and card-counting into your strategy. All of which might sound like cheating, but it’s not really. This is how Monikers wants to be played and, because it’s a chaotic party game you’re most likely playing with a drink in hand, it’s hard to get too serious about things. Instead, this strategy manifests as a makeshift shorthand, a language each team constructs as they play. (And I have to admit, as beautiful as the cards in these pictures are, I’m a bit concerned about the effect that the added descriptions will have. Our version of the cards just feature the name and a category, meaning that when you encounter ‘Krang’ (the brain-in-a-belly villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fyi) and have no clue who they are is, you either have to find a unique angle of approach (“like the cartoon sound effect for two swords clashing against each other”) or give up and move onto the next one, something that’s explicitly encouraged in the game’s rules. Whereas in the forthcoming version of the game, when you’ve got a minute to fire through as many names as possible, and you hit the same card and there’s a helpful 50-word biog of someone you’ve never heard of, the most sensible thing to do is to read it out loud. It’s also the lame thing to do, and I doubt anyone I’d want to play this game with will rely on it, but the temptation is certainly there.) As it is, though, Monikers balances both halves of the party game equation beautifully. It gets competitive in a way that Cards Against Humanity, generally considered the gold standard around these parts, never does but it also encourages you to be even more inventive, more silly, more filthy. Unlike Cards Against Humanity, you don’t have to work blue – only a few of the cards are rude (‘Fluffer’, ‘Goatse’, ‘James Deen’ with that vital second ‘e’) – but it quickly goes that way because your friends are disgusting human beings. Take the example of ‘Rick Santorum’, which cropped up in one of our group’s games. Santorum is a US Republican Senator most famous for being a vocal opponent of gay marriage, but as far as clue-giver Dav ‘Ain’t No Stinkpen’ Inkpen is concerned, the single most salient fact about him is that his surname has been coined, in a moment of beautiful internet vengeance, as the term for a slushy byproduct of anal sex. Our team has no idea about any of this. But when the cards finally […]

What I’m Playing: HEARTHSTONE

And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which became quickly complicated by the realisation that I don’t play one game at a time. If I’ve recently mouthed off to you in a pub about something I’m playing and you fancied reading about it, fear not – there are another five or so half-written blogs just looking for a spare moment to polish and push out the door.For now, though, let’s talk about my great obsession of 2014 so far, the game that has made me thankful for sick days and waking up obscenely early at weekends. The game known, slightly awkwardly, as… A free-to-play collectible card game for PC, translating Magic: The Gathering from cardboard to silicon and populating it with the dwarves, orcs and anthropomorphic pandas of Blizzard’s Warcraft games, all relying on virtual packs of random cards bought with real money as its business model. Except for that bit about the pandas, Hearthstone sounds absolutely awful, doesn’t it? I mean, just look at this screenshot: I’m right there with you. Most of my teenage years were spent running away from the awkward flabby kid I was when they began, and from all the interests I’d built up. At age 15, I’d renounce fantasy as a genre to anyone who would listen. I’d cringe at any mention of Games Workshop. I’d hide the fact that I was reading comics or worse, insist that people called them ‘graphic novels’. At the time, I thought this was putting away childish things. But as I get older, and as my gut grows back to the size it was before I spent a summer replacing meals with milkshakes, I’ve come to terms with the nerd inside. After a few drinks, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about the latest goings-on in the Marvel Universe, or about my latest board game purchase that we’ve just got to try out. If I understood the message of The Lego Movie correctly, I think this self-acceptance is an important part of growing up. Honestly, though, fantasy is still something of a sticking point for me. The naff painted art, names like ‘Malfurion Stormrage’, every card faintly marked with the odour of sweat-starched band t-shirts, sporadic facial hair and dice with more than the usual number of faces. Hearthstone‘s fantasy trappings are more than a little off-putting. But actually playing it, I’ve been reminded that the defence mechanisms I spent those years building up are horrifically shallow, because the game underneath is excellent. Hearthstone is remarkably simple to play. Your objective is to chip down the heath of your opponent’s hero from 30 to 0, using the cards in your hand, before they do the same to you. You get three cards to start, and draw one each turn, and they split roughly into two types: Minions come with their own health and attack points, and can do damage to other minions or direct to the other player. Spells, meanwhile, might pluck a card from your opponent’s hand, or transform the fearsomely-statted minion who’s about to bite a huge chunk out of your health into a harmless sheep, or just freeze them on the spot for a turn. There are other types of cards, too, but minions and spells are your bread and butter: a handful of attacks, blocks and counters which mesh in all sorts of surprising ways. All the best minions have special abilities of their own. One of most common is Taunt, which means every non-spell attack has to be targeted at them – effectively blocking your opponent from causing damage where they really want to. Plenty have buffing abilities of some kind, healing their fellow minions, or boosting their attack value, or even granting them special abilities of their own. Put a healing-ability minion next to another with a respectable pool of hitpoints and Taunt, for example, and you’ve got a sponge that will mop up a few turn’s worth of damage. That’s just the beginning. Playing my first couple of dozen games online, and getting consistently annihilated, practically every new match saw some new combination that stopped me in my tracks, made me laugh at its audacity or mutter swearily to myself over its elegant bastardry. I remember the first time I saw an opponent throw an attack spell at one of their own minions. It was a Gurubashi Berserker, which gains three attack points every time it takes damage. By chipping away at the Berserker’s health one point at a time, then healing it back to full health, they were able to win the game in two brutal turns. Thing is, I’d forgotten how exciting it is to learn by mistakes. That moment where you realise you’ve made a small but vital error, that if only you’d played that second card before the first then victory would be yours, is almost as thrilling as successfully pulling off the perfect three-card combo. Hearthstone features unlockables, daily quests and all that lizard-brain stuff, but it doesn’t rely on them to get its hooks into you. There’s a tangible sense of getting better at the game, and even better, the rare feeling of ‘what if I tried…?’. I’ve hardly touched the deckbuilding, and my initial efforts have turned out to be nigh-unplayable, but I still find myself bombarded by ideas for how a card might work. Not just while I’m playing, either; I’ll be struck by inspiration on the tube, or in the shower, or sat on the loo. Eureka! It takes me back to when I started playing Spelunky, where perma-death meant every slip was a tiny, lethal lesson. Similarly, just by virtue of it being a multiplayer game, every decision you make in Hearthstone is irreversible. Luckily, each move is picked out with such clear lines – a little history of moves running down the left side of the screen, arrows to show what’s affecting what, skull icons to show when an attack will prove fatal – that […]